The 2014 elections should be the Republican Party's to lose.
There's simply not much reason for Democratic optimism. Presidents almost always shed congressional seats in their second term, and with polls showing approval of Barack Obama at record lows, there's little reason to expect a departure from trend. Plus, Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to recover the House, an unquestionably heavy lift, while several of the party's incumbent senators are vulnerable, thanks largely to their support for Obamacare.
But don't call it for the GOP too soon. Republicans are dangerously distracted by a civil war between the party's pragmatic, business-oriented establishment and its conservative, tea-party-fueled grassroots. It's the immigration reform advocates versus the Duck Dynasty fan base, the budget deal closers versus the government shutdown ringleaders.
What's more, the GOP has done little to gain the confidence of women and minorities, who soundly rejected Mitt Romney in 2012, while Democrats are honing a potentially winning, election-year income-inequality theme.
Indeed, in a sign of what's to come, the liberal group Americans United for Change aired an end-of-the-year television ad, asking: "Do you know who had a Merry Christmas? The richest 1 percent, that's who." The spot lambastes congressional Republicans for shutting off unemployment benefits to 1.3 million people while Democrats over the last month have ramped up their criticisms of the GOP for opposing an increase in the minimum wage.
And in perhaps the strongest signal that Republicans aren't positioned quite as well as it might have seemed exiting 2013, the Democratic Senatorial Congressional Committee has outraised its GOP counterpart by $16 million so far this election cycle.
"It feels like the winds are blowing our way in terms of taking over the Senate, but there is very real concern about the collective ability of our side to amass the resources necessary to seize this opportunity," said Republican consultant Curt Anderson. "Many of our donors are understandably gun shy after getting very little return on their investments over the past few years."
Still, Democrats concede they still are losing badly on Obamacare. The Republican Party has opened a four-point lead in the generic congressional ballot, according to the latest CNN/ORC International poll. (Democrats led 50-42 percent in October.) "The latest Republican assault on Obamacare has proven to be dangerously effective," acknowledged the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a recent e-mail blast.
Already, Democrats have little chance of regaining control of the House (though they are eagerly eyeing three recently announced Republican retirements in swing districts – Bill Young in Florida, Frank Wolf in Virginia, and Tom Latham in Iowa). And in the Senate, Republicans now have a decent shot at netting six seats to complete a takeover, thanks to a strategy that has put Democrats who voted for the health care law in the hot seat. Among them: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
"It's time to be honest. Obamacare doesn't work," Americans for Prosperity says in a new ad campaign attacking Landrieu, Hagan, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.
But the civil war wracking the Republican Party complicates the picture. Most of the 12 Republican senators up for re-election have drawn tea party-fueled challengers. In the most danger of becoming the next Richard Lugar of Indiana or Robert Bennett of Utah is Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose Republican challenger has locked down support from several conservative groups. And a crowded Republican primary that includes three congressmen who backed the government shutdown could end up easing the pressure on Democratic frontrunner Michelle Nunn for an open Senate seat in Georgia.
And as unpopular as President Obama has become, an even smaller share of Americans favor the tea party and congressional Republicans.
"So, are we winning right now? Who knows," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee in a 2013 wrap-up that conveyed the muddled playing field. "But what the polling tells me is that the other side most definitely is not winning right now, despite all of their bluster."